Last month’s blog looked at the concept of flow as originally described in the book Flow The Psychology of Optimal Experience, published in 1990 by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-high Chick-sent-me-high). What’s happened to this idea since then? That’s where the book The Rise of Superman, written by Steven Kotler and published in 2014, comes in. Kotler tells us that in the past thirty years, certain people have pushed human performance farther and faster than at any other time in the history of our species. He attributes this astonishing success to the influence of flow and tells us who is making this progress and how.
Kotler tells us that almost all of this progress has occurred within the world of action and adventure sports. Many of the stories are about those individuals pushing the limits of the possible in their chosen sport of rock climbing, skydiving, snowboarding, skiing, windsurfing, parkour, and others. Kotler has many scary, amazing, and stirring stories of athletes performing at levels unheard of just a few decades ago and these are certainly part of what makes this book so enjoyable to read.
However, it’s what Kotler has to tell us about the flow that can prove to be the most useful to the average reader who isn’t about to try any of these dangerous and demanding sports. Kotler mentions the requirements for flow that last month’s blog presented when it discussed Csikszentmihalyi’s original work. Kotler adds that the one element that sets flow apart is the creative, problem-solving nature of this psychological state. The flow requires action in order for awareness to merge into that action. Thus there’s decision making involved at every step. Other methods to alter consciousness, like meditation and dreaming, do not require that the knowledge be immediately acted upon. It turns out that flow is a very efficient and effective decision-making strategy as well.
Researchers found that elite athletes can get themselves into the low alpha/high theta wave state and keep themselves there. Doing this shuts out the conscious mind and lets the implicit system of the brain function optimally. The energy needed for this heightened attention and awareness comes from a tradeoff in the brain. Parts of the prefrontal cortex, where the brain’s executive decisions are made and processed, are temporarily deactivated. Neuroscientists call this transient hypofrontality.
Flow is always a positively experienced mental state. Research shows that this happens because of the participation of five neurotransmitters that boost mood and enhance performance. Dopamine and norepinephrine enhance our mood, endorphins and anandamide increase our perception of pleasure and finally, serotonin helps people cope with adversity and it contributes to the afterglow of a flow experience as well.
Kotler uses the term “flow hack” as any activity that helps propel people into flow and “flow hacker” as anyone performing such action. Kotler says that risk is needed to get into the flow. These risks can be physical but they can also be mental, social, emotional or creative. Triggers to get into flow can be external or internal. A “rich environment” is a combination of novelty, unpredictability, and complexity. The other external flow trigger discussed by Kotler is “a deep embodiment”, paying close attention to the many sensory inputs giving us information about our environment every second.
Internal flow triggers are psychological strategies that drive attention to the flow. Clear goals and immediate feedback keep us focused on the present. The challenge/skill ratio needs to be in an optimal range. Too much challenge and fear overcome us. Too little challenge and we get bored and stop paying attention. Kotler says that the general thinking on this latter issue is that the sweet spot occurs when the challenge is 4 percent greater than the skills. this happens because increased stress leads to increased performance, bit only up to a certain intensity and not above that level. Flow is also enhanced when we participate in a shared group activity. Finally, I think that your understanding of flow will be much greater if you go ahead and read Kotler’s book rather than merely rely on this brief description of the exciting stories and explanations that await you inside of this book.
If you would like more guidance on how to increase your performance, please contact Specialized Therapy Associates at (201)-488-6678 to make an appointment. You can also visit us online at Specialized Therapy.